Student Work at PSU: Finding Hope in 2020

I’ve seen an uptick in “survival-mode” tweets lately. How can we, as educators, as disabled people, as Americans, survive to Nov 3, to winter break, to 2021? And as a white man, how can I leverage my privilege to make survival possible for others, particularly for Queer, Trans, and BIPOC folks?

Today, one of my answers to these questions is “doing and celebrating the work with my students.” I’m linking out to my Twitter and to PSU’s The Ellen Reeder, where I’ve shared recent Essays and Unessays my students from my Rethinking Brit Lit and Global Lit classes have created. The photos, essays, poems, maps, and podcasts all grapple with oppression in some way, pushing back against the social structures that continue to oppose human survival in many ways.

My students’ work is one thing in 2020 that gives me hope for 2021. Many things, actually!

Things that Work

Go home, 2020, you’re an apocalyptic cascade of oppressive systems freshly exposed (again) by a global pandemic, worldwide #BLM protests, and a corresponding surge in public conversations about Racial Justice and Disability Justice.

In other news, I haven’t been blogging in awhile. I have been active on Twitter (@nrhelms), and I’ve been quite busy with the turn to #PandemicPedagogy. Also, after eight long years, I am finally off the academic job market! I have luckily landed at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire as a Assistant Professor of British Literature. I cannot emphasize the luck of it all enough. The current state of employment in higher education is toxic, and collective action is needed now to avoid an apocalypse of higher ed. Or, as my new colleague Matthew Cheney put it recently:

What can we do? How might we reshape our feelings of powerlessness into a sense of possibility? How might some ideals survive?

https://finiteeyes.net/higher-ed/the-value-in-the-public-good/

In this space today I want to quickly count my academic blessings, the bits of work and conversation that are bearing fruit during this trying year.

First, thanks to support from PSU English and from the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at PSU, I’ve launched Intersectionality Talks, a new digital speaker series at PSU.

I’ll also be on the Saul O Sidore Lecture Series committee at PSU, where I especially hope to bring to bear my contacts in Racial and Disability Justice. There’s so much exciting, powerful work being done right now in #ShakeRace and #RaceB4Race, for instance!

I’ve restarted the official PSU English Blog, now called The Ellen Reeder (after the Ellen Reed House on PSU’s campus, home of English faculty offices).

I’m also active in the Disabled Academics Collective, a blog and mutual aid network for everyone in higher ed from undergraduates to faculty & staff to independent scholars. We run a Discord server that’s proving to be a great space for building community and swapping strategies. I’m also on the editorial and social media teams, so if you’re looking to publish something short on disability and higher ed, hit me up.

Finally, I’m working on OER materials for all of my courses at PSU on an ongoing basis. For the Fall of 2020, that means my Rethinking Medieval and Renaissance Literature and Currents in Global Literature courses are all online (including syllabi, assignments, most readings, and all student work). These are explicitly anti-racist and anti-ableist courses, and it’s ongoing work at the level of pedagogy, primary and secondary texts, and student assignments. Collaborative advice welcome, as always!

My goals in all this are straightforward: I want to channel my own rage into collective action; I want to showcase the excellent work of students and scholars in my orbit; and I want to focus on possibility.

So long, and thanks for all the fictions!

Tuscaloosa has been a wonderful home to me. I lived in Tuscaloosa from 2007 to 2019, earning my MA and then my PhD from the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at The University of Alabama and then working as an Instructor for Team English. When my wife got a job at Kennesaw State University in 2017, I started commuting back and forth, finally living in Georgia full time in 2019 and 2020.

It’s been a long, rewarding thirteen years, and consistently the most valuable part of my professional and academic life has been Improbable Fictions.

I’m now in Plymouth, New Hampshire, where I’m starting work Monday as an Assistant Professor of British Literature at Plymouth State University. Improbable Fictions is far from over, but my part in it is now done. Prof. Elizabeth Tavares will be taking over IF after a hiatus to accommodate the ongoing global pandemic.

I’ll be maintaining this blog in perpetuity, but IF will have a new digital platform in the coming year. If you’d like to keep in touch with me, you can find me at nrhelms.org and on Twitter @nrhelms.

So long, and thanks for all the fictions!

Richard’s Mischief Managed

Our reading of Richard III last night was a great success, despite the rainy evening. You can find our Richard program here, which includes historical background and scene summaries courtesy of our director, Angeline Morris. Below, for your viewing pleasure, you can find alternate poster designs from UA art students we thought worthy of honorable mention.

Cartoon of Richard III seeing a stabbed, skeletal version of himself in a mirror.
Poster by A’Neshia Turner
Richard III logo in black font over three crossed swords.
Richard III poster with the image of a wine glass submerged in a sea of wine, upon which a boat is tossed. A reference to Clarence's dream of drowning.
Poster by Anna Sella

IF presents Spring 2020

It’s a busy semester, so Improbable Fictions is concentrating its efforts on two performances this spring.

First off, we’ll be presenting a collection of scenes of and about teaching in early modern drama as part of the 2020 Hudson Strode symposium “The Future of Teaching Shakespeare.” Registration is closed for the symposium (we capped out at seventy attendees!), but our performance is free and open to the public. We’ll be reading these scenes at 7:30 pm on Friday, February 21st, 2020 at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center. Pre-show music begins at 7:15 pm, and a Q&A will follow the approximately 50 minute performance.

Second, IF will present a staged reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, cut and directed by Angeline Morris, at 6:30 pm on Wed, Mar 4th, 2020, also at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center. Pre-show music begins at 6:00 pm. We’re partnering with Theatre Tuscaloosa’s SecondStage: Festival of One Acts, a collection of short plays that begins at 8:00 pm on March 4th and runs through the rest of the week. IF’s reading is free and open to the public. Tickets for the Festival can be purchased here.

Image of a boar eating a crown with the words "Richard III" in the background
Poster by Angel Green

Milton’s Paradise Regained!

On Wednesday, October 16th in 30 ten Hoor Hall, Improbable Fictions presents a staged reading of John Milton’s Paradise Regained.

7:30 pm show start, free and open to the public.

Sponsored by the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, UA Dept. of English.

For more information, please visit improbablefictions.org and strode.english.ua.edu/.

Paradise Regained poster, final, Gustav Dore

Twelfth Night ramblin’

In Trevor Nunn’s 1996 “Twelfth Night,” possibly the best, or at least among the top, film adaptations of this comedy, Toby Stephens plays Orsino as a languid, distant melancholic.

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So it took me a number of double-takes to recognize the same actor — now fiery red-headed, apparently his natural coloring — 20 years later, as bloody, devious Capt. Flint from the lush pirate epic “Black Sails,” a “Games of Thrones”-ish (heavily peopled, disturbingly graphic, reliant much like “Vikings” on period detail, lavishing bucks building actual working ships for ramming and wrecking) production, set in the Bahamas but filmed in South Africa.

It ran four years on Starz, 2014-2017, and you can get it on disc. I found the Blu rays worth the extra dollars; it’s a vivid, beautiful mess.

Stephens works heavily in theater, especially for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as did his parents — more on them in a bit — but he’s been in movies such as Sally Potter’s 1992 “Orlando,” from the Virginia Woolf novel, and Tilda Swinton’s breakthrough role; as the villain in the 2002 Bond movie “Die Another Day,” Gustav Graves; in a 2000 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” as Jay Gatz: and on TV series and miniseries such as the 2006 “Jane Eyre,” playing Rochester. He’s currently John Robinson on the new “Lost in Space” series.

Stephens burned through “Black Sails” as Flint, a former naval officer leaving more than one twisted tale in his wake, a sort-of prequel to “Treasure Island” that mixes Robert Louis Stevenson’s characters (such as Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones) with real-world pirates such as Anne Bonny, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, “Calico Jack” Rackham (who created the skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger flag) and Israel Hands, one of the few who was both historical figure and “Treasure Island” character.

It’s a bloody fine time, if you can abide graphic realism in your sax and violins.

Wonderfully atmospheric music by Bear McCreary, who also composed/composes for “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Walking Dead,” “Outlander” (if you listen, you can hear the “Outlander” theme, “Skye Boat Song,” playing in a bar in “Black Sails”) and others.

McCreary’s one of the rare proteges taken on by film and theater legend Elmer Bernstein, composer for “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Hud,” “Ghostbusters,” “Animal House”… on and on. Though he was NOT related to Leonard Bernstein; just pals, distinguished from one another in their field as Bernstein West and Bernstein East, because while both composed for theater and film, Elmer leaned more LA while Leonard worked more in NYC. Also pronounced differently: Elmer BERN-steen, and Leonard BERN-stine.

Now back to our regularly scheduled Brit-theatrical deep-dive.

Because he carries his father’s name, I didn’t know until imdbing, the day after the Improbable Fictions’ latest staged reading of “Twelfth Night,” that Toby Stephens is the son of Dame Maggie Smith.

The Dame Maggie Smith.

That Dame Maggie Smith. Violet Crawley, Minerva McGonagall, Miss Jean Brodie, and various goddesses, matriarchs and acid-tongued ladies of stage and screen for the past 60 years.

Stephens’ older brother, Smith’s other son, Chris Larkin, has one of those character-actor faces you’ll likely recognize, having been in “Master and Commander,” “Valkyrie,” “Jane Eyre,” and numerous others. Larkin also co-starred on “Black Sails” (as Captain Berringer), as did Stephens’ wife, Anna-Louise Plowman (as Mrs. Hudson), who you might remember from “Stargate SG-1,” or an Eccleston “Doctor Who” episode, or….The “Black Sails” actor who played Anne Bonny was born Lady Clara Elizabeth Iris Paget, daughter of the Marquess of Anglesey.

Aside from being born near-royalty himself as Maggie Smith’s son, Toby Stephens is also step-son to Patricia Quinn, who was the fourth wife of another RSC giant, Sir Robert Stephens, once thought to be the next Laurence Olivier, though heavy drinking dropped him into the gutter.

But after remarrying and sobering up (at least somewhat), then came a somewhat on-the-nose comeback: Robert Stephens won the ’93 Olivier Award for his Falstaff. The RSC also invited him back to play Lear and Julius Caesar. Stephens was knighted early in ’95; deceased in late ’95.

While still married, Stephens and Smith starred in the 1967 film of “Much Ado About Nothing,” as Benedick and Beatrice, built around a stage adaptation directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who you might know from every other Shakespeare film ever, but especially the beloved 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” for which Stephens played The Prince, and Olivier (uncredited) narrated and played Lord Montague. Zeffirelli directed Larkin in a 1996 “Jane Eyre,” though not brother Stephens in the 2006 “Jane Eyre.”

The elder Stephens worked with Kenneth Branagh (who directed and starred in the 1993 “Much Ado” movie opposite HIS then-wife, Emma Thompson) on the 1989 film “Henry V,” as “Auncient” Pistol, while Smith of course worked with Branagh in the Harry Potter movies.

But then everyone’s worked with Branagh, the English Kevin Bacon.

Both Stephens and Smith worked with Olivier in productions of “Othello,” as Iago and Desdemona … though separately.

Oh yeah, and Stephens’ aforementioned fourth wife, Patricia Quinn? You’ll recognize her as Magenta from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Those are her lips at the beginning, mouthing “Science Fiction, Double Feature,” though the voice belongs to her old friend Richard O’Brien, aka Riff Raff, who wrote the musical “RHPS”‘s based on. Quinn’s nephew is the drummer for Snow Patrol.

My new favorite Toby Stephens quote: “Actors don’t listen to each other. You’re so obsessed with what you’re saying or doing that the other person could be talking in Swahili and you wouldn’t know.”

There’s really no point to all this meandering, except that theatrical life can be far more incestuous, twisted and intriguing than just about anyone’s, with the possible exception of perhaps actual royalty.

~Mark Hughes Cobb

IF presents Twelfth Night, Oct 2

And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges!

12 Night poster
Image: A Beach, perhaps the one Viola finds herself shipwrecked upon. Event details below.

On Wednesday, Oct 2, Improbable Fictions will present Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the first staged reading we performed back in 2010. An excellent way to start out our ELEVENTH season! The details:

Notes on *Sir Thomas More*

My classes begin Thursday, and with them my attempts to better infuse my teaching with intersectional thinking. I’ll have thoughts about successful forays and failed experiments as the semester goes along, but today I only have anticipation. As such, I’m taking the opportunity to post some program notes I wrote for a Resurgens Theatre production of Sir Thomas More in April. These are adapted from the epilogue of my book, Cognition, Mindreading, and Shakespeare’s Characters.

(If you need a refresher on Sir Thomas More, check out Sir Ian McKellen’s performance.)

“Scaling the Mountain of Inhumanity”

Augille du Midi, Summer, by Martin Janner
Augille du Midi, Summer, by Martin Janner: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aiguille-du-Midi-summer.jpg

 

Shakespeare’s “The Strangers’ Case” from Munday and Chettle’s Sir Thomas More illustrates the profound and surprising changes perspective-taking can make to spectators. Sir Thomas More is a collaborative text, originally written by Munday and Chettle, censored by Master of Revels Edmund Tilney, and then revised in pieces by Chettle, Dekker, Heywood, and Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare’s tasks in these revisions was to rewrite scene six, More’s success in quelling the 1517 riots. In this scene, More works from the broad, inferential knowledge he has: this crowd is made up of Londoners who are frightened by foreigners and incapable of ruling their own passions. Pitying their disorder, he concludes, “Alas, poor things! What is it you have got / Although we grant you get the thing you seek?” One of the citizens, Betts, takes the question at face value and answers More: “Marry, the removing of the strangers, which cannot choose but much advantage the poor [working men] of the City.” Betts and the other citizens do not follow More’s analogy between their current riot and a hypothetical destructive past. More underestimates the tenacity and single-mindedness of their self-interest. He thought their fears of a disordered world could balance their fears of strangers. Fortunately, Betts’s response gives More the chance to revise his reading of the citizens and, in turn, to encourage them to take on the perspectives of the strangers.

It would be easy for the citizens to brush off More’s description of the strangers’ plight, instead reveling in the image of a London emptied of foreigners. The bulk of More’s monologue in fact deals with the future the citizens will themselves experience if they exile the strangers. Their actions today will reinforce “insolence and strong hand,” and they themselves will become prey to “other ruffians…With selfsame hand, self reasons, and self right.” The imagery of sharks and “ravenous fishes” instills terror in the crowd, reminding them that their actions have ripple effects in the larger world and that self-interested violence creates a violent world: voicing the imaginative transport of the crowd, the citizen Doll replies, “Before God, that’s as true as the gospel.” There are no divisions of city or country in the future More envisions, only the sea of voracious humanity. More takes on Betts’s desire as a hypothetical and conjures up a future where “self right” rules the day. He reads the citizens’ desire, imagines its fruition, and invites the crowd to imagine that horror.

More continues to anticipate the citizens’ future, predicting that they may be mercifully exiled by the King. He is preparing his hearers for a juxtaposition of perspectives by conjuring up a horrible experience: the exile, wandering from shore to shore, victim of the “barbarous temper” and “hideous violence” of unknown others. More employs the citizens’ xenophobia against them. Since they seem incapable of imagining Europeans as friends to the English, More thrusts their future selves into an exile unmitigated by any hospitality. They will be denied their humanity—“spurn you like dogs”—denied their dignity as living creatures—“as if that God / Owed not nor made not you”—and even denied the comforts of physical bodies, of sunshine or a cool breeze—“nor that the elements / Were not all appropriate to your comforts / But chartered unto them?” More holds a mirror up to the citizens of their future: “What would you think / To be thus used?” Indignant? Victimized? Powerless? More spends the bulk of his lines asking the citizens to read themselves and what they might become, playing on their fears of exclusion and the unknown.

More then reverses his strategy in mid-line, shifting from imagination to inference: “This is the strangers’ case, / And this your mountanish inhumanity.” More does not encourage the citizens to imagine the strangers’ case as he did briefly at the start. Perhaps More judges a forthright call for sympathy to be a losing rhetorical move during a riot. Instead, More reframes the imaginative transport he has just taken the citizens through. “This”—this future, this horror, this feeling of abandonment and injustice—“is the strangers’ case.” More creates a perspective for the citizens to inhabit and then repackages it as an inference that the citizens can apply to others. “This” is what it is like to be an outsider. And “this” is the result of the citizens’ own behavior, their “mountanish inhumanity.”

More effects a conversion upon the rioting Londoners. As one the citizens say, “Faith, ’a says true. Let’s do as we may be done by.” A crowd that scenes earlier was threatening at their own peril to burn down strangers’ houses in London is now affirming the Golden Rule, implicitly recognizing the shared humanity of the strangers. More has changed their minds by engaging them as spectators: reading their present state of mind, guiding them on an imaginative transport, and then applying that transport to their present situation. He helps them craft a new (to them) inferential theory of human thought: if we desire hospitality and fair treatment, others desire those as well, even if those others do not share our class, race, religion, or nationality. If all humans are human, then my experience can be linked to yours. Not equated with, not substituted for, but connected in our shared experience of life.

Brit Lit I: the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries

As the start of the fall semester looms closer, my attention has been drawn away from syllabus construction and blogging and toward a lot of the nitty gritty details of teaching: course schedules, Blackboard shells, writing assignments, and of course scheduling service commitments. In the midst of all that, here’s what I currently have for my Brit Lit I syllabus (you’ll want to scroll down to the “Outline of Topics”:

http://syllabi.ua.edu/apis/docs/api/v1/renderDocument/id/5c9535b2d1f3141391efa86a?contextId=20194041157

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Illustration credit: http://www.vecteezy.com

I am not entirely happy with the course readings, though I am excited about a great deal of the new material I’ve been able to include. The middle third of the class, the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, features Elizabeth I, Sidney, Pembroke, Shakespeare, Wroth, Donne, Cavendish, and Milton. I’m also including “The Wider World” topic cluster from the Norton, which features selections of travel writing on Africa, the Arctic, the Americas, and the Ottoman Empire. The last third of the class features Bunyan, Behn, and Equiano, and Norton clusters on “Travel, Trade, and the Expansion of Empire,” “Debating Women: Arguments in Verse,” “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain,” and “Liberty.” The clusters on travel and slavery were only available online in Norton’s Instructor Resources, not in the anthology itself, but I can easily share the pdfs with my students.

I would love to be able to devote more full weeks to minoritized voices in Brit Lit I, as I’m doing with Equiano in our last week of class discussions. (I could certainly grant Cavendish a full week, courtesy of Liza Blake’s excellent online edition.) However, as I’ve mentioned before, the standard canonical anthology doesn’t allow for such an approach. Most of the full-length works in the Norton, for instance, are the soundly canonical ones. I could jettison the use of an anthology altogether, but then I’m tight-rope walking without the safety net of the historical period introductions and the special topics clusters.

For now, I’ll be sticking to the roadmap I’ve laid out above. Things may change drastically for Fall 2020, but that’s the point of these revisions. Decolonizing a syllabus isn’t a one and done affair, it’s an ongoing commitment to challenging social norms. As we move into the fall semester, I’ll continue blogging about my experiences teaching this new (to me) material.